A Pakistani Dancer and Her Life Underground

KARACHI, PAKISTAN, MAY 11, 2002 : For the well-dressed, well-heeled and well-bred of the Horticultural Society of Pakistan, it was an unusually daring event, even risqué. Organizers had obtained a rare government permit and admission was tightly controlled.

Under a round yellow moon at the exclusive Marina Yacht Club here, in full view of her assembled audience, a woman was about to commit an act most Pakistanis are forbidden by law to witness: a dance performance.

White awnings billowed as a wind blew in from the Arabian Sea on this recent evening. Loudspeakers erupted with stuttering, syncopated music. Then, from stage right, a streak of white as the dancer, Sheema Kermani, bounded into the spotlight.

She never paused.

Sometimes with the rhythm, sometimes against, she bent and leaped and twisted. Her jeweled fingers flashed, her huge eyes flicked from side to side, her mouth opened and closed as if the music were breathing for her.

Vigorous, electrifying, sensual, a celebration of the body and its passions, her dance was everything conservative Muslim Pakistan now stands against.


Photo by Piers Benatar

In a country where most women cover their heads and some hide inside full-body burkas, where sexual feelings are seen as a challenge to purity and uprightness, a dancing woman is a defiance and a threat, and Ms. Kermani knows it.

''Muslim men have got this hang-up about dancing women,'' she said after her performance. ''They're afraid that once they see a woman they can't control themselves, that either she'll seduce them or they'll rape her.''

Quick, darting, impatient, Ms. Kermani, 49, fills her pauses with as much energy as her gestures, and she is as vivid and forceful offstage as on, her words as sharp and expressive as her dance movements.

''Here you have a whole culture in which girls are told to hide their bodies, not to be proud of their bodies,'' she said, eating whatever was placed before her at a formal table. ''At the root is the fact that men are scared of the power of women.''

It is a patriarchal challenge that seems to stimulate her. Dance, she said, is as much a social statement for her as an art. ''When a woman stands up on stage, she stands up straight and she says, 'Here I am. And here is my body,' '' she said. ''I think that is the statement that people are afraid of.''

For the past two decades, strictures on dance have tightened as Pakistan has grown more conservative. Most public performances are now against the law. This year, all forms of dance were banned from television.

As a result, one of the region's great art forms is disappearing here, although it still thrives across the border in India. Ms. Kermani is one of the few performers who have not retreated into exile or retirement, one of Pakistan's last great classical dancers.

For all her vibrancy, when Ms. Kermani dances she is already an artifact of the past, a ghost dancer leaping and whirling as if her world were not already dying around her.

''I don't believe there is any other country where dance has got this kind of stigma to it,'' she said. ''Only special private performances like tonight are allowed, and even for this they had to get special permission.''

Under these conditions, it is impossible to make a living as a dancer.

''It depends on the political situation of the moment,'' she said. ''If things are fine, then maybe I will have one performance a month, or even two or three. But sometimes months go by and I get nothing.''

She supports herself by teaching the daughters of wealthy families who want to give them a taste of their culture. Few stay long. Only two of her female students have continued into their 20's and both seem on the verge of disappearing.

It has become a social convention in Pakistan that dance is immoral, even sinful. ''A girl might not get a proposal of marriage if she is seen performing on stage,'' Ms. Kermani said, laughing. ''It's very hard to go against convention. But one can if one wants.''

She does not deny the sexuality of her art, which has its roots in the earthy philosophies of Hinduism. But this is something to be celebrated, she says, not suppressed.

''There's a devotional aspect and there's an erotic aspect as well,'' she said. ''In Indian culture, the God who is most important in dance is Lord Krishna. You worship him and at the same time he is a lover.''

For Ms. Kermani, dance is also a weapon. Art and political activism, she said, have always gone hand in hand for her.

The daughter of an army major, she said the arts were a part of her world from childhood -- piano, painting and dance. She was precocious in all of them. Five years after she started to study dance, she began teaching, at 21, alongside her instructors.

She earned a degree in fine arts in London, then studied in India with the masters of different dance forms. At the same time, she said, she took up political and feminist causes. ''I'm very motivated in the women's movement and in the peace movement,'' she said. ''Dance is part of this whole thing with me.''

When the conservative crackdown began in the 1980's, she fought back, and she spends much of her time now as a leader of a politically oriented theater group.

''There is very little theater in Pakistan today, very little dance, very little song,'' she said. ''And that's because they are so subversive. They tell the truth.''

Ms. Kermani's husband works in theater as well. They have no children, but most mornings her front room is busy with little girls as she teaches them her art.

Her house is filled with music and the ocean breeze twirls strings of wind chimes at her door.

In Pakistan, it seems, murder is often considered a solution to disagreements, and Ms. Kermani said she regularly receives death threats, by telephone or written note.

Once, when she performed with a theater group at Karachi University, she said, students threatened to kill any man and woman who appeared together on stage. At other times, when she dances in major hotels for special functions, employees there send her threatening messages.

''Nothing has happened,'' she said lightly, back home now from her performance at the yacht club. She walked quickly through her house, stripping her wrists of bangles, unclasping the jeweled ring from her nose and letting loose her long, black hair -- lithe, graceful, impulsive, a girl of 49.

''I am still alive,'' she said. ''I believe in what I'm doing. I do it with all truth and honesty. And that's how I've survived.''

Copyright The New York Times